Higher Education Watch
Dark Times for Doctorates

Aspiring scholars who are able to surrender the money, years, blood, and tears it takes to earn a Ph.D., and who make it through a grinding postdoc as well, may be greeted at the end of the whole process with a job that’s not as glamorous as what they had in mind. The current Weekly Standard cover story delves into the grim career outlook for newly minted Ph.D.’s, a growing number of whom are forced to take temporary teaching jobs as disposable adjuncts. One passage:

As human just-in-time inventory, most adjuncts are hired (or fired) on an as-needed (or as-not-needed) basis, and they usually don’t even require office space, because a typical adjunct’s job doesn’t come with an office. Cooley, with his shared office, is one of the lucky few. Many adjuncts are obliged to use their cars as their campus home base, with the trunk serving as filing cabinet. And they need those cars. Most colleges refuse to let their adjunct faculty shoulder more than two courses per semester so as not to trigger the Obamacare “employer mandate” that they be provided with health insurance. So most adjuncts who wish to earn even a barista-level income of, say, $25,000 a year from teaching have to shuttle among multiple campuses, enduring, thanks to the commuting, workdays that can stretch to 13 hours or more. Compare that with the $69,000 on average that brand-new assistant professors at the very bottom of the tenure ladder earn.

As the article notes, commentators on the left and the right have offered different explanations for why the landscape for Ph.D.’s is so brutal. Left-leaning observers tend to blame “corporatization“—the way modern universities increasingly function (in some ways, at least) like traditional businesses, eager to squeeze more labor out of their employees for less cost. Right-leaning observers tend to highlight the costly burdens imposed by federal regulations, as well as the American Association of University Professors’ stubborn resistance to any alterations to the tenure-for-life system that relegates many academics to second-class adjunct status.

Regardless of the cause, however, it’s clear that these are dark times for prospective Ph.D.’s. To paraphrase Dan Drezner, there are two reasons to to take the dive: Either you’re crazy or you’re crazy about your area of study. The Weekly Standard piece should be required reading for any student who is undecided.

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